President Obote: Great man, Great Mistakes is a book authored by Bosco Opio, a writer, teacher, and filmmaker. Writing with warmth and wit, he explores Obote’s journey to power, his leadership skills, strengths, and weaknesses in detail. And, other than recording the post-independence history of Uganda, it also scrutinises critical decisions Obote took or did not take that led to desired or undesired consequences to Uganda and beyond.
Tree-boy to state house
An interesting and original observation is how Obote grew and attained his education in spite of the dangerous challenges that he faced. In 1930 as little Obote prepared to begin schooling, his ancestral home Akokoro did not have any primary school.
And so, he and his two brothers Obadia Akaki and Edward Oboko (sons to Stanley Opeto, the man who inherited Obote’s mother) had to trek miles away to Ibuje Junior School to access western education. Wild animals and tsetse flies were a serious menace that stood, on Obote’s way to school.
The book highlights Obote’s good reading culture. Considering that he grew at the chief’s residence at that time, he would do everything to find a conducive reading nest. Atop a tree, a good distance away from the compound, he often buried his head in his books for hours. So it was that starting from his backyard in Lango District to the rest of hundreds of community grounds across the country, Obote deployed his weapon of wisdom.
Then came the 1961 elections designed to deliver self-government and perhaps independence to Uganda. Because Obote’s party, UPC party (which contested in the elections) was a new party formed barely a few months before the elections, it went down to DP by 35 to 43 parliamentary seats.
The election was however not considered fully representative owing to the fact that Buganda had boycotted it and its turnout was a dismal 10 per cent. Obote offered an equal share to Buganda to appoint 21 members of Parliament and indeed his method convinced Buganda to plan for unilateral independence from Britain.
The book describes the then Uganda as a land of opportunities for everyone who lived in it; a land of unity where tribal divide was virtually absent; a land of academic opportunities where abundant local and international scholarships came hunting for students; a land where the word corruption was not always heard of; a land where agriculture was so rewarding; a land whose economy was ahead of today’s giants Taiwan, and South Korea. Indeed, the author states the country was on the right track.
By creating a vibrant agricultural environment, the author highlights that Obote’s government did not only succeed in employing many rural peasants in life-transformative agricultural activities, they also succeeded in creating peace as citizens were happily busy in gainful activities all year round. And, as the economy grew, the country started reaping benefits from Obote’s government’s policies through better health services, education and other amenities that the government provided throughout the country.
In fact, the absence of the country on the list of poor countries in the world at that time is a clear indication that Uganda under Obote I was on a sound economic standing.
Opinion also shows that through cooperatives like Bugishu Cooperative Union, East Mengo Cooperative Union, Lango Cooperative Union, and Banyankore Kweeterana, and through the effort of the government identifying and negotiating satisfactory markets abroad, rural farmers were able to sell the cotton, coffee, tobacco, and tea to the best bidders.
Thus far, Obote’s dream of transforming the lives of fellow Ugandans was being realised right before his eyes. In fact, it is quite unusual to find a Ugandan who grew up and got educated in the 60s and does not owe their successful education to the proceeds that their parents earned from the sales of cotton, coffee, and tobacco through cooperatives.
Despite remarkable achievements, Opio notes failure marked the end of the golden 60s and everything went haywire.
Squandering his own glory
According to the author, when you speak to those who knew Obote, studied him or worked closely with him, the former president’s weak points overshadowed his strong points and also had a strong bearing on the numerous terrible decisions he often made.
Unfortunately the mistakes occurred too often and were too costly.
A look into Obote’s response to threats from undisciplined army officers in both Obote I and Obote II regimes shows a consistent pattern of adamant reluctance to heed advice on serious military matters.
In most cases, he either did not act or if he did, he took very feeble insignificant actions.
For example, shortly before his death, Obote made a confession about how he as the new Prime Minister in 1962 turned down a very compelling tipoff from a well-informed source strongly warning him against a rogue commander of the Ugandan army whose conduct exhibited strong signs of a dangerous pest that should be removed from the army.
Sadly, it did not take long before the seeds of division and tribalism in the Uganda army commanded by Idi Amin started to ripen into lawlessness, vicious killings, a coup, and a massacre as Tony Otoa a young army officer at the time recalled.
Not mentioning that Obote was a leader who did not enjoy taking the lead on sensitive matters is to be inconclusive. A clear example was when a series of serious crimes in the late 1960s including the assassination attempt on his life in 1969 and the murder of deputy army commander brigadier Okoya in 1970 were linked to Amin and the country waited in vain for action from him.
And, surprisingly when Obote finally decided to arrest Amin, he thought that it was wise that the task be executed during his absence.
“Obote wanted things done but he wanted not to be part of it,” narrates Otoa. “Everybody in the defense council had already agreed that Amin should be arrested but Obote wanted Amin to be arrested after he had gone to Singapore.”
When Obote returned to Uganda in 1980 to embark on a serious campaign to achieve a second reign, Ugandans breathed a sigh of relief especially after coming out of a long brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin.
By the time Obote was ousted in 1985, bush fighters had already been driven out of Luwero triangle and peace had returned to the region. The cost of bush war that followed was simply indescribable and overwhelming. From the most powerful and most loved commander to the last foot soldier in the command chain of the UNLA, the human cost is innumerable.
In the end, the book notes, many people criticised and continue to criticise Obote for making irreversible mistakes, gross errors and monumental blunders that led to the dramatic collapse of not only his government but also his gains.
The 207-page book is available at all leading bookshops countrywide at Shs30, 000.
This is the latest publication of the many Opio has authored, including, I Saw Oyite Ojok Die, and The Crazy Elephant.